Higher Education?

Over the years, higher education has become thoroughly vocationalized, and people now come to university and college expecting to be trained for the job market.

This means that society sees the academy as nothing more than a training facility where specific and transferable skills are acquired by individuals which can then be translated into careers and jobs in the marketplace. Inherently there is nothing wrong about such a view of education; jobs and careers are fundamental to a happy life.

But there is an essential problem here, because a primary component is being consistently ignored, which we can get to by asking a simple question. What guarantees a career or a job or a paycheck in the first place? It is not proficiency in skill – rather, it is the context in which this skill is to be practiced.

And this context, of course, is society. It is only within the context of a good society that jobs, careers – in short, the good life – can be guaranteed.

But if education is nothing other than training efficient workers who only know how to apply their skills in job situations – who will manage the needs of society so that it continues to be good, continues to be that context in which jobs and careers, and the good life, are to be guaranteed?

If no one is educated in taking care of the good society, will society continue to be good? There is a strong and direct co-relationship between prosperity and the good society.

In our own political and cultural context, the good society is the liberal democracy, which depends upon the idea that all of us must work together to maintain the goodness of our society.

In order to do so, we must be educated in the wisdom of the liberal democratic tradition. But if we only worry about training for jobs, who will have the knowledge to ensure that our society remains both liberal and democratic – that it retains its goodness? And what are the characteristics of such a society?

They are ideals that we all aspire to and expect our society to provide – namely, freedom, personal worth, individual rights, and a government entirely answerable to the people.

Notice none of these expectations depend upon skill, upon being a good worker. And none of these expectations have come about as a result of industry’s efforts. Industry can function in any type of society. It has loyalty only to profit.

These expectations are, of course, ideals – and ideals require two things: education – and humane thinking.


The photo shows, “Girls Singing On A Park Bench,” by Minna Heeren, painted in 1873.

Elizabeth Anscombe: Giant Of Conservative Thought

Nearly sixty years ago, an essay appeared which was to have far-reaching influence in the area of ethics. It was published in the January 1958 issue of Philosophy, and entitled, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” The author was Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe.

This essay obliterated the secular basis for morality. In other words, only God could be the rationale for morals. Without God, there could never be any sort of morality. To demand so is simply confused thinking.

The same thing had been expounded by Nietzsche and Dostoevsky earlier, but their analysis had not been thorough, nor did it go after the philosophical traditions that facilitated a God-dependent, yet Godless morality.

Nietzsche lost his way in trying to understand what comes after God, while Dostoevsky could not, in fiction, do a thorough enough critique of atheism.

The brilliance of Anscombe is that she destroyed the very possibility of a secular rationale for morality, which leaves only two choices. Either morality is to be abandoned altogether, or it must return to its historical ground, namely, God, by way of Aristotelean virtue-ethics.

Thus, why be good? Because God demands it of us, because it is good for us as human beings to be good.

What does all this mean? Before trying to understand Anscombe’s argument, let us take a brief biographical turn, which will assist in the explanation, in that, there is a close link between action and ideas.

Anscombe was born in 1919, in Limerick, Ireland, the child of English parents. Her father was an army officer stationed there. She studied at Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford, she met Peter Geach, also a philosopher, and the two were married in 1941 and would go on to have three sons and four daughters.

A year earlier, in 1940, she formerly converted to Roman Catholicism, and her faith guided her philosophy deeply. She remains one of the most important Christian philosophers of the modern era.

In 1942, she graduated and continued her studies at Cambridge, where she became a student of Ludwig Wiittgenstein. This would lead to a lifelong friendship between the two, until Wittgenstein’s death in 1951. She became one of his executors, and also one of the leading scholars of his thought, famously translating his Tractus.

Many anecdotes are related of her rambunctious nature, such as, when told that women should not wear pants, she promptly took them off.

In 1951, she campaigned for Oxford University not to grant an honorary doctorate to President Harry Truman, because of his decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a decision she said was deeply immoral. She failed in this attempt.

Three years earlier, in 1948, while still a tutor, Anscombe rather infamously met the celebrated C.S. Lewis in a debate at the Socratic Club at Oxford.

Anscombe questioned Lewis’s assumptions, since he tried to use philosophical concepts without properly explaining, or perhaps understanding, them. This led him to fallacies and mistakes.

Lewis made the claim that since naturalism asserts all thinking to be the result of irrational causes, naturalism itself is therefore irrational because it too is the result of thinking. There is confusion here between ground and cause.

Anscombe corrected him. Although she too disagreed with naturalism, she did not find Lewis’s refutation convincing.

Irrational causes may very well be founded on both rational and non-rational explanations, and thus to say that a ground (naturalism) is determined by just one type of cause (the irrational one) is simply false.

Rather, it is fairer to say that for naturalism all thinking is the result of irrational causes, but those causes cannot be just irrational alone (which is the mistake naturalism makes), since action is the result of so many things, including rationality and non-rationality.

This turn to psychology is crucial to Anscombe’s thought, for she is considered to be the founder of the philosophy of action, which is the attempt at understanding the psychology of human motivation by differentiating intention from intentionality.

Intention is linked to desire (wanting to do something), while intentionality is that large web of reasons which both make us do things and also explain why we do (or need to do) something.

As well, intention has two results – the desired one, and its unintended consequences.

For example, a man wants to cut the grass with his gas lawnmower because he wants a neat lawn. But his mowing (intention) has the unintended consequence of noise. The man does not mow in order to make a lot of noise, but his desire to mow his lawn creates the noise.

But she is far better known for her clarifications in the area of morality. In her 1958 essay mentioned above, she effectively dismantled the two pillars of ethical thinking, namely, utilitarianism and Kantian deontology.

Utilitarianism may be summarized as doing that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. This means that doing a bad thing for the sake of good results is morally acceptable.

For example, a sniper who must shoot a terrorist who is about to blow up a building with lots of people inside it.

The sniper is doing, in a different way, the exact same thing that the terrorist is about to do – kill. However, the sniper is perceived to be doing a lesser sort of evil, which will have good results – the saving of many lives.

Such rationale, Anscombe calls, “consequentialism,” whereby the consequences of human actions are the most important.

Instead, Anscombe offers a clearer approach – morality is not about doing good according to the prevalent standards of human beings. Rather, morality is listening to, being guided by, the goodness that has been cultivated inside you.

This nurturing of goodness is done by practising virtues, which can only happen by obeying the laws of God, as warranted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Modern-day morality fails because it says goodness is to be found only in actions, and not in people. This is the basis of the plague of “virtue-signaling” that pervades our culture today, or even gun-control. Both of these concepts are founded in the belief that by denying people the ability (guns) to do bad things, then bad things will not happen.

Thus, morality, for consequentialists, turns into controlling people’s actions and behavior by legislation, or otherwise (propaganda).

Anscombe also dismantles notions, such as, the social contract (that morality is what society agrees to, or demands), the common good (what’s good for the goose is good for the gander), and even Kantian deontology (that we ought to do the right thing, which is simply a reworked version of the Golden Rule). But these are all consequentialist explanations, because they maintain humans do not, cannot, possess goodness, only their actions are good or bad.

Therefore human action must be controlled, since humans are morally empty and therefore prone to do anything, if given the means. Deny the means and you deny evil.

This sort of explanation is rooted in the “law conception of morality,” as Anscombe points out, and this has empowered the state with legislative authority. In other words, the state has become God.

But since belief in the Christian God disappeared in the West from the 17th century onwards, trying to derive some sort of “morality” from a “source” (the state) which replaces God makes no sense, since what you end up with is judicial nitpicking that seeks to curtail behavior.

In this way, the state becomes an unregulated power, which facilitates all kinds of immorality because it is a corrupted version of “God.”

In other words, morality can only come from God, and is the direct result of obeying His laws – and yet people do not want to believe in any of this, but they still want to be moral.

This is the contradiction, the great confusion of our age – you cannot be moral by observing the secular laws of the state, because they are designed to regulate, not to inculcate individual goodness. Therefore, human laws are always unequal – fair for some, unfair for others.

Thus, Christian morality has nothing to do with what makes us happy, or even trying to do those things that have good results.

On the contrary, Judeo-Christian morality is only concerned with obeying God’s laws – no matter what the consequences, no matter how unpopular such obedience might be, or even how illegal.

These laws sustain a deep relationship of the individual with the transcendent (the Divine). Morality and goodness are the consequences of such a relationship.

Those that seek to follow a morality without God possess a “corrupt mind,” says Anscombe, which means that such individuals easily do immoral things, thinking that they are doing the right thing.

Thus, abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, and even gayness and gender-confusion are all products of “corrupt minds,” for all of these actions are immoral, but are explained as good by the state.

In other words, it is the corrupt mind which feels the need to virtue-signal, while believing in nothing.

It is the corrupt mind that demands conformity of any kind, while advocating a belief in atheism.

It is a corrupt mind that demands justice while believing in no divine laws.

It is a corrupt mind that demands goodness while possessing no goodness of its own, or explaining what goodness is.

Indeed, well into her 80s, Anscombe was a tireless campaigner against abortion and led protests at abortion clinics, and even getting arrested. She ardently wrote against the misuse of sexuality in all its present-day perversions.

In response to the vast confusions that possesses society today, Anscombe suggests that society itself needs to be honest and abandon all concern with trying to be moral without God.

Instead, it should try to map out the psychology of why people want to do good things (philosophy of action), which is a very, very difficult task. Secularism is not up to the challenge.

But Anscombe is not only a critic; she is also a true philosopher – she shows a way forward. She suggests that one way to start recovering morality in the modern, immoral world is to return to Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which means learning how to be courageous, noble, temperate, and just.

By practising to bring these four virtues into our lives, we will begin to understand the need for morality, since none of these four virtues have anything to do with the laws of the secular state.

In this way, people might acquire the habit being truly virtuous, and this can then lead them to a desire for the good (God), and after that a desire for morality, which is the obeying God’s commands.

Or, like Anscombe herself did, people can start believing in God again, and learn about Him, and then learn to love Him by obeying His laws.

We only corrupt ourselves if we try to be moral without personal virtue, or try to live without God.

Moral philosophy can no longer exist without first dealing with Anscombe’s challenge. To try do so is simply blindness and confusion.

But there is also hope, of course, because her ideas are leading people to virtue – on some campuses, there are “Anscombe Societies.”

Elizabeth Anscombe’s thought is best ummarized in the words of G.K. Chesterton, for “…it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.”

The photo shows a portrait of the philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe.

Review: Zealot. The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth

[Editor’s Note: This review was written when Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus pf Nazareth, first came out in 2013. Given the book’s curious popularity, we thought it best to republish this review, in order to highlight Aslan’s “scholarship”].



Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus is an anachronistic book – it is more about our own era, and the author’s journey within, than it is about the time and place in which Jesus lived. As such, it is a compendium of sweeping statements and unsubstantiated generalities, backed up by lapses in logic and utter fallacy.

On the scholarly level, the entire book is a mishmash of hoary theories, long disproven and rightly forsaken.

Aslan’s supposed explosive and startling revelations are absurdities, like someone passionately trying to prove that the earth is flat. Consequently, he has nothing to offer that might change or advance our knowledge of Jesus in history. But that has never stopped anyone from hoodwinking the naive.

Aslan wants to give us Jesus the man, without any reference to Jesus the Christ. This approach is nothing new – Euhemerus and Leon of Pella, in the fourth century BC, established the fundamental parameters of such analysis: scratch a god and you find a man.

But is Aslan a worthy scratcher? Apparently not, since his book is filled with substantial errors and contradictions, held up by vapid assertions and simplistic assumptions.

Clumsy narratives are far easier to put together – intricacy is harder to deal with.

Terms such as, “Judaism,” “Christianity,” “paganism,” “empire,” “zealots,” “oppression,” “revolution” keep popping up, without any clear understanding of what these terms actually mean in the Roman world of the first century AD.

Antiquity was as knotty and intricate as our own world. Aslan’s book shows no awareness of this whatsoever. He seems to be intent on writing a script for a B-grade movie.

Clumsy narratives are far easier to put together – intricacy is harder to deal with. Aslan ignores the true, historical Roman world and fashions his own imagined one, which is fatuous and (most surprisingly!) conforms perfectly to the points he wants to make about his “Jesus.”

The errors begin rather immediately with the very sub-title of the book, “The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”



Aslan says that he knows ancient Greek – and yet he makes a sophomoric blunder in translation, which leads him to state falsely that Jesus was born in Nazareth and not Bethlehem, and that is why he was known as “the Nazarean…” “throughout his life.” (Correction: he was known as the Galilean).

Aslan bases his assertion on the Gospel (John 19:19-20), where we read that at the top of Jesus’ cross, the Romans placed a wooden sign (the titulus), which displayed a message written in the three languages common in first century Palestine, namely, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

The Gospel (originally written in Greek) provides the text of the titulus as well. It begins with the phrase, Iesous ho Nazoraios.

As someone who supposedly knows Greek, Aslan should not be making any mistakes with a rather easy phrase, which he says means, “Jesus of Nazareth.” This is grammatically impossible.

The correct translation is, “Jesus, the Nazarene.”

In order to get “Jesus of Nazareth,” the original Greek has to be Iesous ho apo Nazoret. But that is not what John 18:18-20 says.

In a strategy that will be used throughout the book, Aslan then proceeds to fashion “proof” for his mistranslation.

What does “Nazarene” really mean? It is a reference to the famous passage in Isaiah 11:1 (“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”).

Where is that Occam’s razor?

As Robert M. Kerr very lucidly demonstrated, the term for “branch” in Hebrew is ne ṣer. The term “Nazarene” comes from this Hebrew word.

Thus, the phrase on the titulus literally meant, “Jesus of the branch.” Indeed, “branch” had a deep messianic meaning for first century Jews.

The readers of the original knew what they were reading – Jesus, the branch of Jesse, i.e., the Messiah – this man Jesus, is Jesus the Christ.

Also, the epitaph of the book is taken from Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Doubtless, Aslan wants to suggest that this verse summarizes his Jesus, the illiterate, peasant revolutionary.

Of course, this sword-saying is indicating a truth far more profound – that the teaching of Jesus will cut-off people from the world, even from families.

So, indeed, it is a revolution – but of the spirit, not of the world – Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36).



At the very start of his book, Aslan declares the Gospels to be historically useless: “Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man” (xxvi). Fair enough. This is nothing new, and dates all the way back to Bruno Bauer, the professor of Karl Marx.

But why then is Aslan’s narrative of Jesus’ life drawn entirely from the Gospels? Why does he look for “proof” for each one of his claims in the Gospels?

Either the Gospels are historically useful sources for the life of Jesus the man, or they are not. They cannot be both useful and useless/

Of course, the Gospels are only useful to Aslan when they back up his claims. Other than that, they are useless to him.

Logic, evidently, is not a strong point/



Aslan tries to prove that Jesus was a zealot (a very old claim, in fact, first raised two-hundred years ago by Hermann S. Reimarus in his essay, “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples”).

How does Aslan substantiate this contention? He turns to the Gospels (again).

Jesus was crucified between two robbers. The Greek word used for “robbers” is lestai (singular, lestes). Aslan “translates” lestai as, “revolutionary,” and argues that because Jesus is between two lestai, he must be a lestes also. The ultimate guilt by association! But is Aslan correct?

The word occurs frequently in ancient Greek literature, from Thucydides (Book I.5) down to the New Testament (where it occurs some fifteen times). It stems from the noun, leia, which means “plunder.” Thus, from the fifth century BC to the first century AD, lestes has always meant, “robber,” “bandit,” “plunderer,” “brigand,” “pirate.”

Where is Aslan getting “revolutionary?”

Multilingualism was the norm – unilingualism was very rare.

The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 AD), first calls lestai two specific violent Jewish groups – the zealots and the sicarii, who were assassins (The Jewish Wars 2.254).

Josephus does not say that lestes means “revolutionary,” or even “zealot.” He is merely saying that these people are “bandits,” or criminals.

But for Aslan this is serious evidence, and he concludes that lestai must mean “revolutionary” because the two groups Josephus mentions did not agree with Roman rule.

Aslan seems not to know that lestes translates also the Latin term latro (“robber,” “brigand,”“bandit”). In most parts of the eastern Roman world, Greek was the common language (a legacy of Hellenism).

Thus lestes was chosen as the Greek equivalent of latro because it was deemed accurate by the people who needed to use these terms.

Both Greek and Latin have perfectly good words for “a revolutionary” (seditiosus in Latin whence comes the English, “sedition;” and stasiastes in Greek).

Why would Josephus and the Gospel-writers not use either of these two words if their intent were to speak about “revolutionaries?” Why say “robber” and really mean “revolutionary?” Again, logic intrudes.

Actually, Aslan is getting all this from S.G.F. Brandon’s two books, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (1951), and Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Primitive Factor in Primitive Christianity (1967).

Back in 1984, E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule destroyed this Jesus-as-a-zealot argument, once and for all. It seems Aslan has yet to hear about it.

anyone can be an expert in the age of Google

Simply put, “zealot” in the first century did not mean a revolutionary, or a resistance fighter against the Romans (this is Aslan’s fantasy).

Why? Because during the time of Jesus, there were no “zealots” in Palestine fighting the Romans – all that came many decades after Jesus! Perhaps math is not a strong point with Aslan, either.

Further, “zealot” derives from the Greek zilotes which means an “emulator” (as in Isocrates and Aeschines), or an “ardent admirer”, and therefore a “follower.”

The first one to say that “zealots” were political in any way is Josephus, and we have to be careful with him as a historical source for Jesus, because he is not a contemporary (he was born at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and he died in 100 AD).

Other historical sources do not link “zealots” with politics at all, let alone struggles against Rome – but Aslan knows nothing about this.

During the time of Jesus, “zealot” meant a Canaanite (“Simon the Canaanite” in Luke 6:15 becomes “Simon the zealot” in Acts 1:13). In fact, “zealot” also meant a Canaanite convert to Judaism (such conversions were frequent).

Thus, when Aslan calls Jesus a “zealot” – does he really know what he is doing with this convoluted Greek term? It is obvious that he does not.

Simply put, by asserting that Jesus was a zealot, Aslan is stating that Jesus was a Canaanite convert to Judaism!

Thus, Aslan’s entire thesis is simply an utter absurdity, built entirely on his own ignorance.



Aslan gets further confused when he maintains that brigands, zealots and the sicarii were all followers of the Fourth Philosophy, and he represents them as one unified group whose aim was the ousting of the Romans from Judea.

The sicarii (“dagger-men”) were terrorists who randomly stabbed people they deemed to be the enemy. As to who “the enemy” was for these terrorists? Anyone they labeled as such.

There may be a very tenuous link between the sicarii and the Fourth Philosophy – but there is no discernible connection with zealots.

Josephus is the first to coin the phrase “the Fourth Philosophy” by which he mean a form of Judaism that was different from the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes.

Again, Josephus is not a contemporary of Jesus, and he is writing about political situations that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day.

Of course, Aslan is blissfully unaware of any of this. For him, “Judaism” is some over-arching “religion” that he has constructed to suit his agenda.

In fact, there were many Judaisms – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians, Boethusians, Levites, Scribes, Elders, Disciples of John, Samaritans, and (if Josephus is right), the Fourth Philosophy.

Each of these Judaisms was distinct from the other, so we do not really know which type of Judaism Jesus himself followed.

There is no evidence in the book that might suggest Aslan really knows anything about Judaism, and what he does say about it is thoroughly misinformed, misconstrued, distorted, and ridiculous (for example, he actually believes that the Jews carried out crucifixions).

Thus, the Fourth Philosophy just was not around when Jesus lived and preached in Palestine. Aslan is taking a political situation long after the time of Jesus, retro-projecting it back to Jesus’ day – and then concluding that Jesus himself was part of this future political situation – therefore he was a revolutionary.

This is not history – it is mere overzealous fantasy.



Another anachronism that Aslan constructs is “the Roman Empire,” which he describes as an organized system of oppression of vast proportions.

This is not surprising given the broad influence of post-colonial discourse in present-day academia (thanks to the silliness engendered by Edward Said).

destroys his own arguments

But does such an analysis have any merit when dealing with antiquity? No, it does not, because the Roman world was far different than that imagined by Aslan.

Needless to say, ancient Rome is another subject that Aslan knows nothing about – but anyone can be an expert in the age of Google.

In complete contradiction to what Aslan declares, the historical record itself cannot sustain Rome as thoroughly oppressive – and this record unravels whatever Aslan has to say about Rome and its supposed “oppression.”

For example, he calls Palestine “occupied territory” (10), under “the boot of imperial” Rome (16).

Then he is forced to admit that Rome was very tolerant: “As generally tolerant as the Romans may have been when it came to foreign cults, they were even more lenient toward the Jews…”(14).

So, was Rome oppressive or tolerant? It cannot be both. Logic once more raises its head.

Aslan likely knows that evidence is stacked against him if he says that Rome was utterly despotic and unjust (although that is how he describes it in his book).

The reality of the Roman world dismantles his reasoning.

If what he says is true, how can he explain the fetiales, the guild of priests who oversaw treaties and foreign relations, and who were often critical of what Rome might want to do, and the caduceatores, the peacemakers, who actively worked to avoid war?

And how can he explain the fact that Roman law forbade the state to wage war (only the collegium fetiales could undertake that duty, after the Roman Senate made a case for a war)?

Further, how can he explain the Pax Romana, when peace endured throughout the Roman Empire for over two-hundred years (an event unprecedented in human history)? Jesus’ entire life was spent in this Pax Romana.

a tedious mishmash of hoary theories, long forsaken

The fact is most nations fought Rome because they wanted to get into the empire – because they wanted to be Romans.

Why would other nations fight to be Roman, if the Romans were brutal and oppressive? Aslan, as usual, has no clue about any of this.

If the Roman Empire were oppressive, would it have lasted until 1452 (when Byzantium fell to the Turks) – that is more than over two thousand years? No empire has endured so long.

Then, the subsequent Ottoman Empire saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, for the Turks came to possess the idea of Rome, that is, Romanitas, or Romanity, Roman-ness – and they called their realm “Rûm,” or Rome. Again, why, if Rome was so horrible and so hated?

Some philosophers, like Rémi Brague, convincingly argue that the Roman Empire still exists and we are very much part of it. The essential character of our civilization is ultimately an extension of the Roman world.

In fact, where would the United States be without a blueprint of the Roman Republic?

All this would be impossible if Rome were inherently oppressive and everyone wanted to be rid it.

Suffice to say that Aslan’s understanding of Romanity is nonexistent, which is curious since the man Jesus, whose life story he wants to tell, was very much a product of Romanitas.

Rome was in Palestine because of treaty obligations that stemmed back to 161 BC. Aslan distorts this when he delves into the paradigm of conquest and hegemony, which serves no purpose other than to highlight his romantic construct of revolutionaries fighting for freedom. (He likely has present-day Palestine in mind).

The fact is the majority of Jews preferred the peace and stability guaranteed by Roman rule over their own indigenous priestly theocracy. Most Jews greatly benefited from being Roman citizens and never supported any sort of insurrection.

Further, the ideals of pacifism were the majority view among the Jews living in the Roman world.

The violent factions came much later, after the time of Jesus, like the sicarii. These factions were in the minority.

However, their selfish actions brought the most harm to the entire Jewish nation. That is why Josephus hated them, because this violent minority destroyed the peace and stability enjoyed by the vast majority.

Aslan knows nothing about the reality of the Roman world in the East. He has created a cartoon version that might serve as entertainment, but which has nothing to do with historical truth.



Much is made of the famous episode of the tribute owed to Caesar and to God (Matthew 22:15-22: “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”).

Aslan declares this to be a summary of the zealot’s creed (78). This idea comes from S. G.F. Brandon once again.

To back up this absurd claim, Aslan tries to do some fancy footwork with Greek. He states that “render” is a mistranslation of the original Greek term, apodidomi. (We are already familiar with his “knowledge” of Greek, but he needs to demonstrate it once again).

All he can do is garb his ignorance in folds of plausibility.

He argues, very confusingly, that the real meaning can only be accessed if this term is broken down into its two component parts.

Then, the two parts have to be translated separately.

Next, the two separate translations should be smashed together to yield the most accurate meaning for apodidomi. Right…

Thus, for him, apodidomi actually means, “to give back again” (77). Where is that Occam’s razor?

Aslan has no idea that there is an actual difference between morphophonemics and semantics.

So, by his logic, in order to understand what the word “obvious” really means, we have to split it up into its two parts, which ultimately come from Latin.

First, there is ob, which in Latin can mean “on,” or “against;” and then we have viam, which, again in Latin means, “the way,” “the road.”

Having done such needless gymnastics, we can now declare that the word, “obvious” really means, “to be on your way,” or “to go against the road, or against traffic.” Of course!

In brief, apididomi means exactly how it has been translated by real scholars of Greek, “to render,” or “to pay back an obligation, or a debt.”

Thus, Jesus is teaching about fulfilling one’s obligations – both mundane and spiritual. There is nothing here about fighting Romans, as Aslan wants to argue.



Aslan claims that 97 percent of the Jewish peasantry was illiterate (34). He does not divulge the actual Roman records that provided him this figure, since Roman statistics on literacy in their empire have yet to be unearthed by archaeologists.

Nor do we know if they even did such surveys. Why would they? But that cannot stop Aslan’s “scholarly” insights.

He gets this figure from the convoluted reasoning offered by Catherine Hezser, although Aslan does not mention her in his Bibliography (as with so many of his mentors).

Aslan needs this fake illiteracy rate to further his contention that since Jesus was a peasant, he was therefore illiterate. He just assumes that Jesus did not belong to the educated 3 percent. Again, logic is an issue.

a compendium of sweeping statements and unsubstantiated generalities

Whatever the literacy levels were of the Jewish peasantry, the fact remains that there is enough evidence to indicate the importance of writing in ancient Judea, as epigraphic finds (papyrus hoards and the library at Qumran) clearly demonstrate.

All this material suggests widespread literacy in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. If literacy were so low, why did Paul write letters, and why were the Gospels even written, if 97 percent of the population would never be able to read them?

Three of the gospels (excluding Luke) were written for Jewish readers.

And, there are over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, some 10,000 in Latin, and thousands in other languages that were part of the Roman world (like, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic).

In fact, manuscripts of the New Testament are the most numerous for any text from the ancient world.

Who were all these manuscripts for, if almost everyone was illiterate?

Literary culture in the first century was rich and diverse (there were even Jewish novels in this era) – and it is a culture that is entirely unknown to Aslan.

Interestingly, just a few pages later, Aslan contradicts his own thesis. He states: “By connecting his miracles with Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is stating…”(111).

Is not this process of “connecting” a literary text with one’s own ideas known as “literary allusion?”

How could an illiterate peasant be involved in genuine literary activity without having read the book of Isaiah?

Complicating matters is the fact that the Scriptures referred to in the New Testament are the Septuagint (LXX) which is in Greek and not in Hebrew. Thus, Jesus would also have to understand Greek, along with Hebrew.

Of course, Jesus could have memorized these passages. But that would suggest intensive schooling, since someone would have had to read Isaiah aloud and enough times for pupils to memorize verses deemed important.

However, Aslan has already told us that his Jesus was unschooled (35).

But now suddenly we have an educated Jesus, intellectually challenging his compatriots, and using bookish arguments. An uneducated, illiterate Jesus makes no sense, even in the make-belief world of Aslan.

As an aside, if Jesus were illiterate, how does he know about the intricacies of Hebrew writing (Matthew 5:18) – the yod w’kotz shel yod (the jots and tittles)?

Which is it, then? Was Jesus literate, or not? He cannot be both. Aslan actually says he’s illiterate but has him behave like a highly educated man. The evidence once again runs counter to the thesis.



Aslan makes the sweeping claim that Aramaic was “the primary language of the Jewish peasantry: the language of Jesus” (35).

It is not clear if Aslan actually knows any Hebrew or Aramaic, or any other Semitic languages (we have already learned that his Greek is non-existent). Nevertheless, his assertion is completely false.

Aslan’s greatest strength is inventing conspiracy theories

Linguistic reality in first century Palestine was complex, where the majority of people spoke three or four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin).

Each language had a function which was intimately connected to particular social and economic strata. It all depended on who one was speaking with, since different aspects of daily life required one or more of these four languages.

Multilingualism was the norm – unilingualism was very rare, even non-existent, because people needed more than one language to function in the Greco-Roman world.

This is a concept unilingual North Americans have great difficulty understanding.

In Galilee, the true homeland of Jesus, Hebrew was the spoken language, and it remained so well into the fourth century AD. Thus, Jesus grew up speaking Hebrew – not Aramaic, as Aslan wrongly contends.

Epitaphs, mosaics, and synagogue inscriptions firmly point to trilingualism, with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek thoroughly intertwined.

For the Jews, Hebrew was, and is, the lashon-haq-kadosh, the sacred language used by God.

Aramaic, also a Semitic tongue, is closely related to Hebrew. It exists in two dialects – western ones used in Palestine, and eastern ones used in Syria, i.e., Syriac, or Talmudic Aramaic.

Many Jews (certainly not all) preferred to use Aramaic in daily life because they deemed Hebrew too holy for mundane purposes. This explains why the Targumim are in Aramaic.

Aslan says that he knows ancient Greek – and yet he makes a sophomoric blunder in translation

Jesus’ use of the three languages current in first century Palestine is clearly evident in the Gospels. Sometimes, he speaks Hebrew and Aramaic (Matthew 27:46); sometimes he speaks only Aramaic (Mark 5:41); and sometime he uses pure Greek (Matthew 16:18).

This complex multilingual reality is also reflected much later in the various documents of Simeon bar Kochba.

And this is why the titulus above Jesus’ head on the cross is in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

(By the way, why bother with such a placard, if 97 percent of the population is illiterate?).

Aslan’s declaration that Hebrew was “barely” understood by Jews (34) is therefore meaningless. This view was current until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, which thereafter firmly established Palestine as a multilingual place.

It is strange indeed that Aslan is using a pre-1948 explanation, which has been long demolished. No doubt, Aslan prefers ignorance over fact.



There are quite a few Freudian-slips throughout the book. One example may suffice.

Aslan states: “By the time Jesus set up his ministry…”(95).

Why is a revolutionary setting up a ministry? One would think that he would be busy putting together a deadly arsenal (with the requisite ballistae, a scorpio or two, and various small arms), getting recruits (certainly way more than just twelve), and that he would be hunting around for an out-of-the-way field to establish his boot camp (as Simeon bar Kochba indeed did do some six decades after Jesus).

It would be tedious to go through all such Freudian-slips. They are Freudian because despite Aslan’s best efforts, the truth does manage to slip out – in his own arguments.



Mary (page 37): In Mark 6:3, Jesus is called the “son of Mary.” Aslan sees this as a record of Jesus’ illegitimacy. This reference, of course, is not about legitimacy – it is about an emergent veneration of Mary (Mariology), which had already begun in the first century.

Despite not knowing any Semitic languages, Aslan proceeds to “translate” the reference to Jesus in Mark 6:3 into Aramaic as, “Jesus bar Mary!” (If he wants the Aramaic version, the proper translation is, “Yehoshua or Yehsua bar Miriam”). Aslan is likely using C. P. Thiede here, though Thiede is not mentioned in the Bibliography.

Crucifixion (page 155): Aslan says that crucifixion was reserved “for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry.”

Aslan knows nothing about Judaism

Once again, the unsubstantiated sweeping statement. Aslan needs to closely read the lex Puteoli. Crucifixion was simply a method of execution for crimes that required capital punishment.

It had nothing to do with politics, as Aslan imagines. There are very many instances of non-political criminals being crucified (Roman or not). For example, Verres crucified Roman citizens without any qualms (famously, Gavius); and Galba crucified a murderer who had poisoned his ward.

As well, if Romans citizens wanted to punish, or get rid of, slaves, they could have them crucified (it was cheap). Women also were crucified. Tiberius had the priests of Isis crucified. Cicero frequently mentions crucifixion of Roman citizens. Of course, Aslan is simply ill informed about the Roman world.

Paul (page 183-196): No, Paul did not invent Jesus the Christ. Jesus himself proclaimed his divinity by elaborating the Jewish idea of agency, in that God acts through one person (angel, patriarch, prophet, finally the Messiah). Aslan again displays his ignorance.

Paul was not ostracized and despised by the Jerusalem Christians. Aslan is simply repeating F.C. Bauer’s very old thesis, long discredited. Paul became part of Christianity – he did not create it – and Paul saw Christianity as Judaism fulfilled, and he understood the church as the New Israel.

Throughout the book, there are many, many other such errors, sweeping-statements, contradictions, and outright falsehoods. Detailing these any further would be pointless.

Aslan’s greatest strength is inventing conspiracy theories (which seem always to sell well).

Lastly, a word on Aslan’s style, since he teaches creative writing. Throughout the book there is a tension between two stylistic registers – fiction and nonfiction. It seems Aslan really wants to write a novel.

The book begins with an appeal to immediacy, with a sudden and jarring use of the second-person personal pronoun (“you”).

We are then offered some contrived “sights and smells of ancient Jerusalem,” and we even get to witness an assassination.

Such techniques may work in a cheesy novel, but they have no place in a book claiming to be factual history.

There is also a tendency to over-write, and thereby throw up the fog of purple prose.

Logic…is not a strong point with Aslan.

For example: “Zeal, the spirit that had fueled the revolutionary fervor of the bandits, prophets, and messiahs, was now coursing through the population like a virus working its way through the body”(53).

And, “…the Roman swarm swept through the upper and lower city, littering the ground with corpses, sloshing through streams of blood…”(67).

Then, there are the frequent and needless clichés: the “boot of an imperial power”(16); “large swaths of the countryside”(17); “handful of sects”(37); “rampaged through the countryside, burning with zeal”(44); “Jesus’s neighbors were a different story”(94). And so on.

Lastly, the pluperfect tense is much too liberally used throughout the book.

Hardly a page can be turned without encountering, “would have,” “might have,” “could have.”

No doubt this is a nervous tick that points to Aslan’s tenuous knowledge. All he can do is garb his ignorance in folds of plausibility.

It is customary to look for some merit in a book, and it is this: it is work of psychotherapy.

In the Author’s Note, Aslan describes his encounter with Jesus the Christ, and then his loss of faith (because he could not overcome doubt). Such struggles happen to many, and such people move on.

But Aslan needs to hang on to Jesus in some way. Thus, he creates a Jesus of his own making; a Jesus that he can be happy with.

One can only hope that having worked it all out in the pages of his book, Aslan now feels much better.

As for Jesus, he belongs to history and to faith, and Aslan knows nothing about him.


[The photo shows, “The Mocking of Christ” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1880]

Review: Battling The Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand (Chapter 1.XLIV). Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.


Atheism strives to be the next “religion” of the West, as promulgated by its evangelists, who declare God to be a delusion and propound faith in science, which alone embodies everything that people will ever need for life and happiness. Religion, they say, is superstition, which humanity has simply outgrown.

It was Wittgenstein who made a crucial observation in his Tractatus: ““…even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

Science fails whenever humanity needs more than bread to live, which is why people have always held the belief that they are greater than their body, for they have a soul.

Certainly, some have denied this expression and concluded that beyond the physical there is only the unknown.

It was the Greek philosophical tradition which first produced such incredulity and which the Polish scholar, Marek Winiarczyk, spent a lifetime researching, as he built on the foundations laid by both Adolf von Harnack and Anders Bjorn Drachmann.

This philosophical denial is not equivalent to contemporary atheism, however, since known ancient doubters could not abandon transcendence (as expressed in the question of the One and the many). For them, transcendence meant the totality of being outside the self, namely, other people, other creatures, and the entire cosmos (which included the gods).

all strawmen require monolithic simplicity

Thus, ancient doubters could only question, or deny, the totality outside the self – but this is not atheism.

What lay beyond the material realm was never denied. “Nothing escapes the divine,” said the philosopher Epicharmus of Syracuse, and Heraclitus observed, “Human nature has no knowledge; divine nature does.”

The tradition of doubting totality beyond the self begins with the Pre-Socratic philosophers. But while they questioned the traditional (Homeric) structures of belief (the gods), they could not deny transcendence, from which all things were created, including the gods.

In effect, they were speculative thinkers, who sought to get beyond the shortcomings of their polytheism in order to understand the One (the transcendent precondition of the material world).

Indeed, the various gods were an embarrassment to the Greco-Roman philosophers, who had achieved great sophistication of thought, but lived in a culture that worshipped deities that could be no more than wilful human beings.

why does an atheist demand Christian ethics?

These philosophers termed this transcendence the apeiron, or the Undefined, the Unbounded, which guaranteed the existence of all creatures (the many in the material realm).

By way of the Socratic tradition, such understanding veered into the clarity of Judeo-Christian philosophy, whereby the apeiron is God, who is beyond all creation, as necessity, while also being universally present – the first and final cause (as Thomas Aquinas states).

Thus, the Greco-Roman doubters were not atheists in any modern sense of the term (not even the ancient Skeptics), for their doubt was a step towards knowing a greater reality beyond the gods.

In the words of Sextus Empiricus, “the Skeptic does not frame his life as a man according to the doctrine which he professes as a philosopher.” Life cannot be lived by denying the apeiron.

Modern-day atheism, in fact, is deeply grounded in Christianity, for it cannot think beyond the structures that Christianity has established – it can only work to deny them, and thereby establish scientism. Thus, present-day atheism is simply a Christian heresy.

To be specific, atheism has a very clear lineage – Cartesian separatism, Enlightenment libertinism, Hegelian development, Darwinist determinism, Nietzschean will to power, Marxian materialism and idealism, existentialism, fatalism, and the Heideggerian impasse.

This convoluted process may easily be simplified as, nihilism.

Dawkins and his ill-tutored ilk aside, proper atheism is the erasure of the question of God – it is not simply the denial of God for lack of proof (as commonly misunderstood). This means that God is impossible within space and time, because there cannot be a precondition to physical things – the many do not need the One.

In Greco-Roman philosophy, however, the question of the One (God) is never erased – it cannot be erased, because being is impossible without preconditions. Thus, again, there was no atheism in the ancient world.

Tim Whitmarsh argues otherwise in his book, Battling the Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World, by claiming that present-day atheism is the same as “ancient atheism.”

It has to be said at the outset that most chapters of this book read like extended lectures notes, likely thrown in to give girth to an otherwise rather lean output. For example, why is a lengthy geography lesson on the Greek peninsula included, followed by the tedium of a crash course in the entire breadth of the history of ancient Greece? Indeed, what do the Minoans and the Macedonians have to do with atheism?

moral excellence through wisdom

The book seems like some twenty-page academic journal article puffed up into a full-blown book.

Whitmarsh is a professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, who self-identifies as “fiercely secular,” and as a “New Atheist: “Is there any synagogue, mosque or church where the ideas of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are expounded seriously and constructively?”

(Whitmarsh fails to mention why such explanations would be serious and constructive, or even necessary, since none of his three “saints” can hold a candle to Maimonides, Avicenna, let alone the sublime Thomas Aquinas).

The context in which Whitmarsh writes his book is postmodernism, which is the precondition to universities nowadays.

Among many other things, postmodernism (properly, poststructuralism) denies expertise, while privileging opinions, since truth and values do not exist. Consequently, history can only be spin, a rhetorical exercise, to display style, preference, choice, or a political posture. Herein lies Whitmarsh’s strength.

To be fair, Whitmarsh does admit early on that notions of atheism are markedly absent in antiquity, and only in some instances of Greek thought does doubt about the gods arise.

But Whitmarsh wants to service several agendas with his book. one being that atheism is “a human rights issue: it is about recognizing atheists as real people, deserving of respect, tolerance, and the opportunity to live their lives unmolested.”

Who knew that atheists were not considered “real” human beings?

More importantly, how is it that a devout atheist is advocating for human rights? This might have led to some interesting insights, but Whitmarsh has none to offer. Nor can he explain where these rights will come from, and who will guarantee them worldwide, so that they may be freely dispensed in aid of beleaguered atheists.

(What manner of hubris is it that allows authors to imagine that their words will actually save people, or feed people, or even stop some imagined oppression dead in its tracks now that their book has seen print? Vade retro me, Satana).

Both “respect” and “tolerance” are part of Christian morality; they are hardly vanguards of atheistic expedience. Why does a fervent atheist demand Christian ethics? Whitmarsh seems unaware of the contradiction he is invoking.

Another agenda is the lament for the vanishing interest in things classical. Whitmarsh is likely just flummoxed because he cannot justify the subject that he teaches, which has zero utility in the kind of atheistic society he wants to create.

The best he can come up with is the vague notion that by studying the Classics, people will know where ideas like atheism come from (which certainly serves as a handy justification for his own book).

rhetorical “victory” over Christianity

But why is knowing the origin of atheism, or any idea, important to anyone trying to earn an honest living in this harried world? The book offers no clues.

Whitmarsh might have wanted to look deeply into why he teaches what he does in a post-Christian context. Why does an atheist decry the absence of value, in a world made empty of meaning by atheistic postmodernism? He seems not to know that as an atheist he can only advocate skill and never wisdom (which is morality, which is guaranteed by God), techne over Sophia.

Atheism cannot offer values, because the minute you start demanding values (rights), you are demanding God (foe whom courts and politicians are a very poor substitute).

Values lead us into moral natural law, and that brings us back to a Creator who actually loves us enough to ingrain in us a code of decency, and we therefore treat others decently as well.

Education used to be about guiding people towards moral excellence through wisdom, the consequence of which was the good society, as first pinpointed by the Greeks and later embodied in Christianity (hence the creation of schools by the Church). In such a Christian system, the study of the Classics imparted the ethical eloquence of civilization.

Thus, Whitmarsh simply leans upon the “simulacra of morality” (in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre) to demand nothing.

It was Nietzsche who pertinently observed that nihilism is marked by the inability to answer the question, “Why?”

Skills education is ultimately about creating complaint workers for vanishing industries, a process in which the Humanities (especially arcane subjects like Greek and Latin) can play no role whatsoever.

After much grumbling, Whitmarsh finally launches into his real (and rather divergent) agendas:

  • That twenty-first century atheism is Greco-Roman in origin;
  • That “monotheism” is genetically violent;
  • That “polytheism” was tolerant and peaceful;
  • That Christianity, as monotheism, is violent, as well as fraudulent and power-hungry, and it destroyed the tolerant, pacific world of antiquity.

Tackling all this requires Whitmarsh to be an anthropologist, sociologist, classicist, historian, philosopher, theologian, and literary critic. Needless to say, therefore, errors and confusion abound, as Whitmarsh argues with a sledgehammer, to misuse a Nietzschean trope.

Immediately, terminology poses a stout challenge. “Atheism,” “polytheism,” “monotheism,” “violence,” “tolerance,” “religion” are hardly monolithic, self-evident categories that are readily transposed from the Oxford English Dictionary all the way back to the Greco-Roman world.

In fact, these terms are entirely meaningless, and scholars avoid them, and Whitmarsh’s uncritical use of them sabotages his arguments.

For example, “polytheism” does not mean worshipping lots of gods, as Whitmarsh assumes.

Rather, ancient belief systems blended pantheism, pandeism, henotheism, panentheism, along with magic, shamanism, ancestor-worship, natural science, music, dance (such as, the maze-dance, or the cult-dance), and psychology, as evidenced by the Greek mystery cults and Mithraism.

In fact, ancient belief was always a mixture of expectation, desire, hope, and the urge for well-being.

As for the term, “atheism” itself – since Whitmarsh does not define it, he therefore confuses it with Greco-Roman skepticism, pessimism, pragmatism, cynicism, atomism, syncretism and gnoseology – all of which, in turn, encompass much variety.

Thus, Whitmarsh’s reductive methodology is blind to complexity. Indeed, complexity would destroy the various strawmen that he needs in order to further his agendas – all strawmen, it would appear, require the simplicity of monoliths.

In fact, since polytheism was so multifaceted, the very idea of atheism is irrelevant in the ancient world.

Because Whitmarsh fails to define what he means by “ancient atheism,” he assumes that there is an unchanging “essence” to “atheism” which persists through time and space (a very theist notion in itself).

He tries to overcomes this deficiency with awkward sweeping summaries: “[Thucydides’] History can reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheistic narrative of human history;” and, “as a rule, Greek religion had very little to say about morality and the nature of the world.”

This all just Pelion piled on Ossa.

More to the point, Greek philosophy perfectly understood the paradox of unbelief as belief – which means that the material world was deemed unimportant and therefore subject to unbelief, while belief in the immaterial was unquestioned.

In fact, unbelief led to belief in the immaterial – this is why Plato says that the material world is not real. “Knowledge is the joining of the act of knowing and the soul,” explains the sophist Lycophron.

Although Greek philosophy could do without the gods, it could not do without the apeiron, which Plato would name, the Great Architect (the Demiurge), and Aristotle would call Pure Form, or the Unmoved Mover – and which Christianity came to call, God.

Even, Carneades (whom Whitmarsh uses as his ancient atheist poster-child), when he says that the Demiurge is unknowable, is not being an “atheist,” but is simply expressing the limit of human reason – his real doubt is in the ability of both sense and reason to comprehend and explain the immaterial. This is hardly atheism – and Carneades’ subtlety entirely escapes Whitmarsh. The limitation of the mind does not lead to the impossibility of God.

Thus it is not surprising to find more pointless generalities: “The search was on [in ancient Athens] for nonsupernatural causes for pretty much everything.” (Further instances would be tedious to quote).

Actually, much of what we know of the workings of reason in the Greek world contradicts Whitmarsh’s statement, because the Greeks were very careful to distinguish between all learning (causes), or polymathie, and intelligence, or noos, and the role of both in reason.

Again the words of Heraclitus will serve to correct Whitmarsh: “Wisdom is one thing, but to understand the purpose which guides all, through all things.”

The material world cannot exist without purpose (transcendence) – i.e., God.

Further, in an attempt to summarize Democritus, Whitmarsh concludes, “the fact that our world is as is is the result not of an integrated design in the universe but of luck.”

(Such awkward syntax is a “nervous tick” throughout the book, evident whenever Whitmarsh veers into unfamiliar territory. The many hats he has forced himself to wear tend not to fit too well).

Unwieldy sentences aside, Whitmarsh thoroughly misunderstands Democritus. Atoms had size, shape and position (in other words, purpose – precisely an “integrated design”), and because of this purpose, atoms were enabled, predetermined, to construct material things (very much like Legos, which are “designed” for shape, for things).

This is why Democritus advocated the importance of physis (the soul), which gives the body its purpose. He never denied its existence.

the Bible is part of ancient Greek literature

Thus, atoms were part of the apeiron’s (God’s) ability to create. As for luck, Democritus corrects Whitmarsh in this way – “Fools are shaped by the gifts of luck.”

It is curious indeed that Whitmarsh resorts to half-truths and outright half-baked claims to convince his hapless readers – while consistently failing to address the far more important paradox in Greek philosophy – why unbelief could never become a rigorous and codified system of thought, and why therefore only brief instances of individualized unbelief survive – and these cannot be cobbled into some sort of grand narrative of “ancient atheism.”

In fact, all Greco-Roman thinkers fall into the “believers” category. Hence the inherent, likely unwitting, contradiction in the very title of the book. If one is “battling the gods,” then the gods exist, and “ancient atheism” therefore does not.

This might well have been a focused, and much shorter, compendium of expressions of doubt in Greco-Roman thought (although Whitmarsh is unable to add anything of value to Winiarczyk’s excellent work).

However, “ancient atheism” is simply a means to a greater agenda – the final debunking of Christianity, which Whitmarsh energetically pursues by way of the now familiar modus operandi – questionable scholarship.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a vigorous and intelligent critique of Christianity, but Whitmarsh can muster neither.

Instead, borrowing the logic of the middling conspiracy theorist, he sets out to “reveal” what has been hidden and suppressed by conniving Christians for two millennia (surely, the time has at last come to put such “revelations” out to pasture, since they are now meaningless).

Next, Christianity is declared to be inherently violent because it is monotheistic, and then charged with bringing untold suffering into a happy, tolerant, polytheistic Mediterranean world.

polytheism had nothing to offer

Here, Whitmarsh adheres to the simulacra of scholarship by uncritically accepting Jan Assmann’s peculiar notion that monotheism is inherently violent.

This is, of course, all warmed-over Freud, who first set up the misleading dichotomy of a violent monotheism (Judeo-Christianity) opposing a tolerant polytheism..

Both Freud and Assmann needed this hypothetical dualism to make sense of Nazi atrocities within the context of German culture, and both cared little for historical fact, which is why Assmann could conclude that the Holocaust was ultimately a creation of the Jews themselves, since they brought monotheism into the world (a claim that he now disavows).

Like Freud, Assmann is a good “novelist.” Whitmarsh, on the other hand, in not. He simply accepts all of Assmann’s ruminations about matters psychological – as Gospel truth.

The result is a caricature of not only the Greeks and the Romans, but of Christians and Christianity, whereby polytheism is held up to be tolerant and peaceful, while Christianity (because it is monotheistic) is declared to be intolerant and violent.

Whitmarsh’s opining is easily dismantled by the idea of love in Christian philosophy and theology – where love is a universal and universalizing principle that embraces not only friend but also foe; that responds to hatred with compassion; that seeks humility and the ceaseless surrender of the self for the benefit of others. Love is the highest, and the only, form of morality that the world needs.

(Whitmarsh might have done well to put aside his ideological blinkers and contemplatively read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in its entirety, not just the more famous Chapter 13. Curiously enough, Whitmarsh avoids the New Testament and the entire Christian tradition. Both would make for a very poor strawman).

Logic firmly declares that there can only be one truth – not several. And the truth is very simple – Greco-Roman polytheism was unable to counter Christianity’s deeper philosophy and more cogent theology. In other words, polytheism had nothing to offer to counter Christian love.

the ethical eloquence of civilization

As for the matter of Christian exclusivism, Whitmarsh does not to want to understand another simple concept – Christianity offered the Greco-Roman world what it lacked – a better, greater morality.

Syncretism is never a strength, but a weakness – because it means that there is no developed method of discernment that can separate right from wrong. Christianity provided a mature ability to discern what is good and what is bad, what it real and what is not, what is true and what is false – all through the lens of love.

Next, Whitmarsh sets out to “prove” both his caricatures (violent Christianity vs. peaceful polytheism) as true. Facts easily derail him, however.

Violence was deeply embedded in the pagan world, as expressed in the rituals of animal – and human – sacrifice. Thus, the gladiatorial shows were more than entertainment – they were the munera (our word, “money” comes from this term); that is, blood offerings to the spirits of ancestors.

Child sacrifice also was endemic throughout the ancient Mediterranean, with the tophets in North Africa and the Levant (as shown by the work of Robert M. Kerr, and others), while child exposure was the norm (the victims were often female infants).

War itself could only be undertaken if religiously sanctioned. Thus politics and religion were never separate, as evidenced by the Sacred Wars of the Greeks.

Further, the fetial priests of the Romans gave religious affirmation to violence on the battlefield, through divine law (the fas), as blood-offering to the spirit (genius) of the nation.

All violence in ancient pagan societies, therefore, required religious permission in order to negate ritual pollution. Christianity alone put an end to the necessity and logic of blood sacrifices.

Whitmarsh further claims that the ancient Greeks had neither the concept of, nor a word for, “sin,” since they had no divine laws to transgress, unlike the Christians.

Love is the highest form of morality

It is obvious that Whitmarsh conveniently chooses to ignore the concept of the nomos (tradition) among the Greeks, and the ius naturale (innate, natural law which all people obey) of the Romans.

To bolster his claim, he declares that, as a result, Christians had to “invent” a word for “sin” when they “translated” their Bible. This “invented” Greek word, he says, is aliterios.

This is wilful deception at best.

In fact, aliterios is never used in the New Testament. It is only found four times in the Book of the Maccabees (2 Mc. 12:23, 13:4, 14:42, and 3 Mc. 3:16). It is an obscure word in an Apocryphal work (in the Protestant tradition), which hardly makes it crucial to the entire Christian theology of sin.

Further, aliterios does not mean “sin,” but a “miserable person,” a “wretch” in the context of Maccabees.

And aliterios is not a “translation” from anywhere but is found in the Septuagint, which was originally written in Greek by native speakers.

Thus, aliterios was not “invented” by Christians, since the authors of the Septuagint were Hellenized Jews, living in Alexandria, in the third century BC, and therefore writing in their own language (Greek).

Further, aliterios is hardly unique to the Book of the Maccabees; it is found elsewhere in non-biblical sources. Whitmarsh can easily look it up in his Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon.

What Whitmarsh does not tell his readers is that the normal Greek word for “sin” throughout the Bible is hamartia, and the Greeks (like all humanity) knew what sin was – the transgression of divine law – otherwise, why would Oedipus stab out his eyes in ritualized penance?

There are eight other words for sin in ancient Greek, which are also found in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, the Bible is very much part of ancient Greek literature, a fact Whitmarsh chooses to ignore, or does not care to know, because it is inconvenient to his agenda.

As well, Whitmarsh frequently asserts that Christians “translated” their Bible. By repeating this prevarication, he only displays his own nescience.

all Pelion piled on Ossa

How could the Bible be “translated” into Greek when it was entirely written in that language, by native speakers?

There are many other such deceptions, and it would be over-kill to catalogue them all.

Whitmarsh next reaches into some obscure corners, namely, the Circumcellion rebellion in North Africa, in the fourth century AD, to keep his violent-Christianity narrative chugging along.

His overwrought “proof,” however, only demonstrates an inability to differentiate hostility as a literary trope from actual bloodshed (he points to sermons and hymns as evidence of Christian violence).

Further, he downplays the political and social causes of this rebellion which had little to do with religion and everything to do with economics. The result is a confusion of the history of ideas (hymns and sermons) as the history of facts (economics).

In fact, we know very little about the Circumcellions. Therefore, disparate data is often thrown together to form some sort of coherent narrative, which suits Whitmarsh’s purpose well.

The fourth century was a complex period in North Africa, with Berbers, Romans and Vandals vying with each other. As well, each of these groups practiced a different form of Christianity. Thus, there were always “Christianities,” rather than “Christianity” (as is the case today). But such complexity simply gets in the way of Whitmarsh’s reductive strategy. Monoliths are easier to rail at.

Next, Whitmarsh sets out to demonstrate that Christians lied their way into becoming the “winners” of history and therefore the suppressors of truth – because one writer (Candida Moss) says so. He does not tell us why he believes Moss’s argument to be true, since it has been effectively dismantled.

He persists with the logic of the conspiracy theorist by holding firm to the vapid notion that “winners write history.”

Therefore, Whitmarsh can only repeat Moss’s casuistic conclusion that the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the Roman world is a myth, purposefully contrived to win sympathy and facilitate the takeover of the Roman Empire. Neither Whitmarsh nor Moss provide actual documentary evidence for this early Christian contrivance.

Nor can they answer the question as to how sympathy possibly leads to political and territorial acquisition (no doubt, many a would-be politician would pay good cash-money for such knowledge).

a caricature of Christians and Christianity

Again, the history of facts undermines Moss and thereby Whitmarsh. Persecution of Christians was frequent and grim at the local, communal level – and it was sporadic and far bloodier at the imperial level.

The Romans had no police force and thus neighborhoods ruled themselves; and it is within such small, self-regulated communities that many of the martyrdoms occurred.

On the imperial level, being a Christian was a capital offence, as Pliny and the Emperor Trajan very clearly state, because Christians refused to honor, through sacrifice, the pax deorum, the “peace of the gods,” which involved offering incense to the spirit (genius) of the Roman Empire, in the person of the emperor.

This offering defined “Roman-ness” because it was said to protect against the forces of chaos that might beset the entire state. These sacrifices were meant to ensure social, cultural and political stability.

The refusal of Christians to participate in this religious practice made them atheists in the eyes of the Romans and therefore dangerous and subject to the death penalty – because their refusal to participate in sacrifices would mean upsetting the cosmic balance of human duty to the gods – and in turn the gods would refuse their duty of keeping chaos at bay.

This might have indicated to Whitmarsh that “atheists” were hardly tolerated by his caricatured polytheists. Enforcement of the law by imperial decree against Christians was haphazard, but when enacted, resulted in systematic persecution and executions.

Thus, Whitmarsh’s entire book becomes a parody of scholarship, since his interest is not historical fact, but some version of rhetorical “victory” over Christianity.

First, he casts Christianity in the role of the wretched Other, then he proceeds to vilify, deride and misrepresent it by all means possible in order to “prove” the superiority of his own faith, atheism, as romanticized and idolized in his caricature of Greco-Roman paganism.

In the process, the “fiercely secular” Whitmarsh readily dispenses with truth (as a postmodernist, he does not need it) – and his various claims therefore are nothing more than spin in order to win a contest between his cause (atheism) and its opponent (Christianity).

Johann Fichte and Ludwig Feuerbach  elaborated an important psychological trait of the modern world – autotheism. Thus atheism is ultimately autotheism, the endless veneration of the self as god. This is the greatest attraction of Whitmarsh’s religion, and his book, therefore, is nothing but a selfie.

Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 290 pp., $27.95 hc.

[The photo is of “The Last Day of Pompeii,” by Karl Briullov, painted: 1880-1833]